The story behind Secrets and Tea at Rosie Lee's...

When I started writing ‘Secrets and Tea’, back in 2014, I quickly realised there was only one place I wanted to set the book. Being born and raised in the East End of London, it seemed only natural to me I would set the story there. I knew that Abby’s story would be full of strong characters, both women and men, and since that’s exactly the kind of people I’d grown up around it made perfect sense. 

In the book, Abby’s café (I’m always tempted to stress that it should be pronounced ‘caff’ as in of the greasy spoon variety, not café as in tasteful Parisienne style eatery!) is sited in a small parade of shops, all facing the consequences of being just outside the trendy bits of East London. My inspiration for this was my grand-parents greengrocers. For years they had their shop in what was the thriving centre of the local community; back in the days when people bought their meat from the butchers, their bread at the bakery and their fruit and veg from people like my Nan and Grandad. But the relentless march of progress, the rise of supermarkets and the need for more homes for London’s exploding population, eventually forced them to sell up and that little parade of shops was bulldozed and turned into a row of terraced houses. I spent many happy hours there playing with empty fruit and veg boxes in the yard behind the shop (it was a different time – that’s what we did for fun before iPads!) and it makes me a little sad to think that a place that meant so much to me when I was growing up is now completely gone. But, as Abby says in the book “That’s progress apparently.”

The other major link to my East End background was the character of Flo, the seventy-year old white- haired whirlwind who is Abby’s constant. For that character I went straight back to my beloved Nanny Betty, my maternal grandmother. She was a formidable woman. Originally from Newcastle, she met my Grandad – an East End boy through and through – when they were both stationed in Darlington during WWII. They fell in love and got married and my Nan left all her family and friends behind to move to Canning Town and help my Granddad in his family’s greengrocery business. My Grandad Bill’s family did not approve of the young Northern girl coming in and stealing Bill’s heart, especially since his family had already lined up a suitable East End girl for him to marry when he came back from the war. But my grandparents loved each other desperately, remaining devoted to each other and the family they built until my Grandad’s death in 2003. Betty became a ‘naturalised’ East Ender, complete with Cockney accent, and to hear her talk you’d never think she’d grown up in the North of England. She was an example of true grit and determination, with a sharp tongue but a heart of gold. Just like Flo. 

In Secrets and Tea, I hope I’ve managed to convey my love of where I grew up and the influence it’s had on me. Families living in each other’s pockets, the odd dodgy character selling boxes of stolen gear out of their kitchen, everyone just working to get by and take care of each other. That was the East End I grew up in and the place I returned to for inspiration in ‘Secrets and Tea at Rosie Lee’s’ but the themes in the book would be the same wherever it was set. The importance of family, the complicated relationships we forge with the people we love, and the courage to take a chance on the future – I hope all of these ideas speak to everyone who reads the book, no matter where they’re from.